When Sling Media released a trio of second-generation models in the fall of 2006, the Slingbox Pro was at the top of the line. Unlike the entry-level Slingbox AV, the Pro had pass-through outputs, an analog tuner, multisource capability, and the capability to accept high-definition video sources. Unfortunately, it also came with a handful of caveats: while it could accept HD video, it downconverted that to 640x480 for streaming--and you needed to invest in a $50 dongle if you wanted to use a component video (HD) source. It was also an ugly maroon color, ensuring that it contrasted with everything else in your home theater equipment rack. The third-generation Slingbox Solo appeared the following year, co-opted nearly all of the Pro's key features, making the need for an upgrade to the Pro even more apparent.
Almost two years to the day since the Pro was released, its replacement is here: the Slingbox Pro-HD. The new model fixes nearly all the annoyances of the older version, and brings it up-to-date for the upcoming DTV transition. Specifically, component inputs and outputs are onboard (no more dongle); the unit can now stream "HD" video (or, at least, better than 640x480) to remote PCs; the enclosure sports a much improved look and feel; and the unit even boasts a built-in digital TV tuner. As with the original Slingbox Pro, most of this will be overkill for the majority of users who just want to stream their live TV or DVR to their PC or smartphone--for that, the Slingbox Solo will more than suffice. But for home theater enthusiasts and hard-core gadget-heads who need remote access to multiple audiovisual sources and want the best-quality video streaming to other rooms in their home, the Slingbox Pro-HD may well be worth its $300 price tag.
Stream your TV anywhere
Before we focus on the specifics of the Slingbox Pro-HD, let's take a broader look at the Slingbox technology as a whole. The Slingbox lets you stream your home TV programming to your broadband-enabled computer, smartphone, or to a SlingCatcher receiver that's hooked up to another TV. Both the Slingbox (source) and the device running the SlingPlayer software (receiver) need to be connected to high-speed broadband networks--a cable or DSL line, a 3G wireless network, or a home network--but the distance between the two isn't a factor. As long as you're getting normal broadband access speeds, you can watch your Slingbox playback anywhere--be it in another room of the house or halfway around the world, literally.
The following devices can receive live streaming video from a Slingbox, using software that's freely available at Sling Media's Web site:
Windows PCs: Windows (2000, XP, or Vista) machines, including ultramobile PCs (Version 2.0 of the Windows software is currently in beta, and offers a built-in program guide and buffer not currently found on other platforms)
Apple Macs: Mac OS X (10.3.9 or later, for PowerPC or Intel machines).
The Slingbox can also stream to a variety of cell phones and handhelds that are Wi-Fi or 3G wireless-enabled. The mobile software for each platform is available for download for a one-time $30 fee (after a free 30-day trial period). The license is interchangeable between platforms, however, so you can effortlessly transfer from, say, a Windows Mobile to a Symbian phone just by typing in your serial number.
Palm OS phones and handhelds: The PalmOS version of the SlingPlayer works on the Treo 700p, Treo 755p, and Centro.
Symbian: The SlingPlayer software is available for higher-end phones running both the S60 (Nokia) and UIQ (Sony Ericsson) versions of the Symbian operating system.
Sling has publicly demonstrated a BlackBerry version of its software, which is scheduled for release by the end of 2008. The company has also shown a "proof of concept" iPhone version, which is also in development--but we wouldn't be surprised if Apple, seeing it as a competitor to iTunes, doesn't allow it to be released on the App Store. In other words, even if Sling eventually makes a great version of its player for the iPhone/iPod Touch, there's no guarantee that Apple will let it see the light of day.
The other viewing option for watching Slingbox playback is the forthcoming SlingCatcher. Long delayed, it appears it will finally be released later this fall. The SlingCatcher is a hardware SlingPlayer that you connect to your TV. So you could connect a SlingCatcher to your bedroom TV, and use it to access the DVR in your living room (which would, in turn, be connected to a Slingbox) to watch live or recorded programs. Doing so would require just a network connection in the bedroom, not a cable or satellite hookup. That's the theory, anyway--we'll see how it works in practice once the SlingCatcher is actually released.
Design of the Slingbox Pro-HD
The Slingbox Pro-HD looks like an elongated version of the older Slingbox Solo, with the extra space needed to house the myriad AV jacks found on its backside. It sports the familiar Slingbox trapezoidal design, but the Pro-HD's metallic black and gray housing looks far more attractive than its inexplicably red-colored predecessor. Except for the three red indicator lights on the front face, all the action is around back. There's no power switch, either--once plugged in, the Slingbox is designed to be always on, just like a cable modem or router.
The Pro-HD's rear panel boasts multiple sets of inputs and outputs, so it can sit innocuously between your cable or satellite box (or DVR) and your TV, and soak up signals from three sources: one for a standard definition (composite or S-Video plus stereo analog audio); one dedicated high-definition source (component video plus analog stereo or digital coaxial audio); and one RF coaxial video source. The RF source can be either analog (antenna or cable) or digital (ATSC antenna or QAM cable, including full high-definition). Using the SlingPlayer software, you can toggle between the inputs at the touch of a button. (In fact, you can really have two analog AV sources--one on composite, one on S-Video--for a total of four video sources, but they'll either need to share an audio input, or one will have to be sans audio--such as a security camera, for instance.)
The component video connections of the Slingbox Pro-HD have no trouble processing HD video (720p and 1080i, but not 1080p). An HDMI connector would've been nice, but that would introduce pesky copyright protection and digital-rights management issues. Nevertheless, be aware that some cable boxes can't support parallel HD video output (simultaneous HDMI and component video), so if you already have the cable box connected via HDMI, you might need to use component (passed through the Slingbox to the TV).
We ran our HD DVR through the Slingbox's inputs using the component video cables and the digital audio cable; then we connected the Slingbox outputs to our TV. We also connected an RF cable to the Slingbox, and ran it to an antenna. We left the standard-definition inputs open, but serious gearheads could add one or two more. (It's worth noting that Sling includes pretty much every cable you'd need: component, composite AV, stereo audio, RF, S-Video, and Ethernet.)
In addition to connecting the Slingbox between the cable/satellite box and the TV, you'll also need to connect it to your home network. With no built-in Wi-Fi, the only choice is the wired Ethernet connection. If you don't have a network cable in the vicinity, you'll need to opt for a wireless bridge or power-line networking interface. We've had much better luck with the latter, which sends network traffic over your home power lines. Sling offers its own SlingLink Turbo products, or you can opt for similar models from Netgear, Linksys, and the like.
Once you have the Slingbox base station wired up and ready to go, you'll need to install the viewing software on a PC (Windows or Mac). The initial setup must be done within your home's local network. The software follows a bulletproof, wizard-style install path; if you have a plug-and-play router, the whole process should take just a few minutes. The latest iteration of the SlingPlayer software setup includes a setup wizard (which steps you through settings on more stubborn routers) and a great video-optimization wizard (which automatically calibrates the software settings to your PC's CPU and graphics card). While home networking products always introduce some level of complexity to the setup process, the Sling software is about as good as it gets for guiding even newbie users through the gauntlet.
Once it's up and running, the software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player, just with channel-changing controls. If you've connected the Slingbox to a TiVo, a cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR, or even a DVD recorder, you'll also get video-transport controls: pause, rewind, fast-forward, and so on. Version 2.0 of the SlingPlayer (Windows only, so far) is far improved from earlier iterations. It includes a 60-minute buffer, a built-in onscreen programming guide, and compatibility with online Sling.com accounts (which provides a central repository for your Slingbox serial number and password--useful if you've got multiple boxes, or access them from multiple devices). The buffer lets you rewind, pause, and fast-forward on the PC itself--eliminating the delay you get when communicating with a DVR through the network.